Sunday, July 13, 2008

Eco-Anxiety: A Time to Grow-Up

A New Worldview – Leaving Fantasy Land, Entering Pioneer Land

“As someone who is studying to be a psychologist,” the young man asked when Howard Knustler spoke at the University of California Bakersfield campus about the implications of peak oil, “what can we in this field do to help people deal with what we’re facing?” Without a moment’s hesitation Knustler replied, “Help them grow up.”

I was reminded of Knustler’s reply recently when I saw an article on Peak Oil Parenting by Annie the Nanny entitled “What Happens When the Reality of ‘No’ becomes Clear to Middle-Class America?” Annie points out that as parents we say “no” a lot, because we know our children need to learn about boundaries. Like it or not they can’t have and do everything they want whenever they want. But as adults we in the US hate boundaries. We don’t like to hear the word “no.” Instead …

Over the past energy-rich half-century, the two-year old developmental task of learning to accept and live within boundaries and the four-year old task of learning to differentiate between make-believe and reality, have flown out the window. We’ve grown accustomed to a world of “Yes.

As Annie extols, ‘No’ has become “a minor inconvenience, which has rarely popped up. Yes, you can have a mortgage with no money down. Yes, you can afford that new truck. Have that trip to the Bahamas because guess what…you’re worth it! Yes…yes, you can.”

In recent years the limited possibilities of past generations appeared to disappear. Most Americans define themselves as part of a comfortable middle-class, enjoying, taking for granted, and feeling entitled to a life filled with luxuries once reserved for and others never even dreamt of by royalty.

In this Fantasy Land of limitless energy and perpetual growth, one never really has to grow up. We can savor a womb-like, climate-controlled environment and be bottle-fed every form of comfort and convenience we can afford, living in a kind of perpetual toy-land of shopping and playing in an ever-larger sandbox of entertaining and high-tech toys.

We’ve enjoyed a sense of omnipotence once reserved for spoiled two-year olds and the unlimited magical beliefs of spoiled four-year olds, thinking that with the right education, good job, family heritage, or a winning lottery ticket our dreams, whatever they might be, can come true. Somewhere out there, we can wish upon a star and find a free lunch waiting.

In his book The Dumbest Generation Mark Bauerlein of Emery University reports that “two-thirds of US undergraduates now score above average on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.” (See the LA Times review “Speeding to stupidity – or not.” July 5th) But this self-absorbed you-can-have-it-all, everything-is-possible, build-it-and-they-will-come, whatever-you-believe-you-can-achieve world of prosperity thinking has been built upon cheap energy, and, of course, working longer and harder to pay for our toys and a place to keep them.

Now Here Comes Mother Nature

We’ve been bombarded with this fantasyland worldview through decades of advertising campaigns that have enticed to spend our way into massive personal debt. But a burgeoning world population, dwindling natural resources, and dramatic climate changes are bursting the fantasy. The rising price of energy has put us on an unavoidably rough and very bumpy long road ahead.

Like every young child, we’re discovering that in the natural world – the real world – neither we nor our technology are omnipotent. There are limits to our power to define reality, not matter what we believe, wish, or pray for. Also, like most children, we don’t like facing the grown-up world where not all dreams can come true. Nature is imposing some big “no’s” on us leaving us eco-nomic anxious and eco-angry at the very real prospect of being banished from Fantasyland.

As helping professionals even though we may be having some of our own issues adjusting to today’s new reality of “No,” we nonetheless need to guide our clients in cultivating a new worldview that’s compatible with a grown-up realty. Of course they’re not children so we cannot treat them as such. We can’t stand them in the corner until they wake-up or give them a swat on the tush. But we can offer a grown-up worldview that will serve and sustain us. We can assume the simultaneously firm and caring attitude good parents use to help their children learn about limits.

Yes, that may make us seem like the “mean bad guys.” But the alternative is for stark reality to be the teacher and it reality can be a mean and ruthless parent if we don’t pay attention to it. Unless we voluntarily adopt a grown-up worldview, economic realities will force us to do so kicking and screaming. That will be much harder than beginning to learn we need to learn now while we still have the resources to make the changes we need to make.

Another Familiar but Near-Forgotten Worldview Is Standing By

Fortunately there is a readily available grown-up worldview we can turn to. Having been stowed away in the cold-storage for decades, it’s a familiar story with deep roots in our national heritage. Wash off the romantized wrapping we’ve stored it in and you find not a Fantasy Toy Land, but a New World Pioneer Land of many frontiers.

Life in the “New World” our ancestors pioneered on the frontiers of yesterday was rough. Sometimes really rough. But our ancestor were tough. They lived through many hardships, yet they savored newfound freedoms from the burdens and constraints they’d suffered in the countries or cities they were fleeing. Like us today, many of them headed into the unknown because they realized that’s what they had to do if they wanted to survive.

As they stepped into unknown territories they didn’t ask, “What all do I want?” They asked, “What do I need?” They didn’t insist on comforts. Nor did they hire others to do anything they could learn to do themselves. Usually that meant they had a lot much to learn, just as we do if we are to survive the today’s new world.

They didn’t want more than they needed. They learned how to make do and how get by with what was available nearby. They relied on themselves, their families and the small communities where they settled. They helped each other, and, as the story goes, prided themselves on developing courage, ingenuity, patience, strength, and endurance. All traits of grown-up human beings.

They didn’t they toss away anything that still worked for a new one at the slightest ding or word of the latest model. They took good care of what they had, including the land, because “just get another one” or “buy some more” wasn’t usually an option. Those who survived had the greatest respect in particular for nature because they knew nature was not to be ignored. Their survival depended on understanding and accounting for its limits and boundaries. They also knew too well that, as Henry David Thoreau discovered on this trip to Mt. Kadaan, “there is a force in nature not bound to be kind to man.”

The men and women pioneers of yesterday also did many things they didn’t particularly like doing and endured many discomforts, but even at the most difficult, so the story is told, they maintained a sense of excitement, hope, and promise on their journeys, taking great deal of pride in their endurance, ingenuity, and tenacity.

This is the spirit and worldview we need to foster today. Not one of doom and gloom. Not one of denial. Not one of hedonistic fatalism or an endless search for easy substitutes. But one of hope for a new world composed of grown-ups who learn, innovate, solve problems, fend for themselves together and take on their journey with the determination and enthusiasm that a child brings to learning to walk, riding a bike, and mastering the other tasks of growing up.

There are still elders among us who remember elements of this old story. They remember times when grandparents passed on treasured, well-cared-for belongings to their grown children who welcomed and treasured them in turn. They remember times when folks were proud to make their own clothes, can their own food for winter, bake their own bread, and save for a rainy day.

We can encourage folks to reach out to this older generation and listen to their memories of the far different, nearly forgotten stories that sustained our ancestors. As permaculturist Marty Falkenstein of Falcon Ecological Design in Eureka Springs, AR, urges her clients, “Let’s return to our roots. Let’s tap into our DNA! We ‘re the descendants of survivors!

Coming soon - Helpful Mantras for Pioneering This New World
Sarah Anne Edwards, 2008


  1. Thank you, Sarah, for your dead-on article. As a former psychotherapist, I couldn't agree more. Please see my recent article "Rapid Unraveling And The Demise Of Adolescent America" at:

    Carolyn Baker

  2. This is a deep insight into our psychology. Pioneer lifestyle is a good example in the sense that most Americans can relate easily and concretely to it.

    However, the pioneers depleted recourses like buffalo, timber and topsoil much faster than they were renewed, as well as bringing genocide to the natives.

    They were also unconnected to the land or a deep family/ tribal tradition- something I think we will need in the future.

  3. Yes, Mathew, I too thought about the way some pioneers in the past thoughtlessly used up resources and of the shameful genecide of our past. That's why I emphasized the conserving aspect successful early pioneers adopted or had to learn the difficult way as their top soil eroded and turned to dust and resources suffered. That is part of how they learned to care for what was available and use it wisely.
    I agree it is important to differentiate these points with others and to keep the focus on the deep family and community bonds that did develop both in rural areas and large cities as immigrants came to this country under dire conditions, including the many painful lessons they learned that we must not repeat.
    Yes, there is a fear that dire times ahead could bring out the worst in people. Certainly there are ample examples of that from our past. But I think we need to see our situation as a different kind of New World experience, one in which we can draw lessons from the best of our long heritage, both immigrant and native, and pioneer new ways of living together in a world of far wiser grown-ups. Surely that is possible. At least we must make every effort to find out.

  4. I think all of this spot on but at the same time I think we have to remember that the pioneers had many, many skills that we have lost or had pushed out of us by the lifestyle that has been thrust upon us by Madison Avenue and the proponents of growth. And learning how to do is a great healer of the wounds we have accumulated in our pursuit of the myth of oppulence.

    Bob Ferris
    Executive Director
    Yestermorrow Design/Build School

  5. I couldn't agree with you more, Bob. We have lost so many skills in this hermetically-sealed, petroleum-built world. The most concerning of which is the ability to grow our own food, which Richard Heinberg spells out quite dramatically in Chapter 2 of Peak Everything. We have so much to learn. We're like babes in the woods. Even many of our elders have forgotten or never learned basic living skills. Fortunately there are people who are beginning to teach these skills - we call them the lost arts - in some communities. We list a number of them as needed careers for the future in our book Middle-Class Lifeboat. Organizing such educational programs is another important role helping professionals can take the lead on in their own communities. Are you doing that at Yestermarrow? What a great company name.

  6. Please post these comments following your New World View post. Dr. Michael J. Cohen.

    In 1936, a New York City elementary school teacher insisted that a left-handed boy in her first grade class write with his right hand. This produced depression in the youngster that was accompanied by mild speech, posture, nail-biting and stress disorders. As he worked to overcome them over the years, his academic training led him to attain a Ph.D. in environmental psychology and education. His research validated that we are born with more than 53 natural senses, (including left-handedness for 10 percent of the population). It demonstrated that most of the personal, social and environmental disorders that we suffer, including greed, stress, abuse and addiction, result from Industrial Society's unreasonable disregard of the callings of our natural senses.

    Our 53 natural senses are part of nature's life-guidance, the means that nature uses to help our thinking and feeling sustain the health of ourselves and the global web of life community. We produce our greatest problems because we seldom learn to think sensibly by using our 53 natural senses. Instead, to our loss, we injuriously suppress them.

    This Ph.D's research produced a potent, nature-connected remedy that helps us effectively address the underlying source of most personal social and environmental troubles. It is a restorative educating, counseling and healing with nature process, an ecology and spirit that empowers us to think with our natural senses. Readily available on-line, and also in a newly released 150 page book, "Educating, Counseling and Healing With Nature," it generates nature-connected learning and relating. It is an effective antidote and preventative for many dysfunctions including Nature Deficit Disorder, runaway conflicts and our alarming environmental deterioration. It enables us to think like nature's self-correcting perfection works.

  7. Thank you, Dr. Cohen, for sending your comments. I am looking forward to doing a review here of your new book soon. Having gotten my phd in Ecopsychology through your program (see link under Resources to the right), I agree that nature itself provides us with a worldview for how we are designed to function harmoniously on this planet and has given us the sensory tools to know how to do this. Unfortunately in our nature-disconnected world these innate abilities have been buried in a disfunctional view of life that is bringing us and the planet great pain right now. This is why I recommend Eco-Therapy or Eco-Education as the ideal approach for addressing the stress, anxiety, and concerns we face today (See April,Eco- Anxiety: Why Eco-Therapy?). It is easily integrated into both psychological and spiritual healing modalities.

  8. Yes, Sarah. Yestermorrow is a non-profit school in central Vermont and we teach a lot of what could be considered "lost arts" from timber framing and basic carpentry skills to permaculture and sustainable community design. If you are or your readers are interested please visit our website at:

    Bob Ferris
    Yestermorrow Design/Build School